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App Store Pioneer, Imangi Studios Cofounder Keith Shepherd On Creating A Killer Game App

On the occasion of Apple’s App store hitting 50 billion downloads in 2013, we talk to the co-creator of the 170-million-downloads-and-counting game Temple Run and its follow-up hit Temple Run 2.

Keith Shepherd

Cofounder, Imangi Studios
Shepherd and his wife, Natalia Luckyanova, started the game shop behind the 170-million-downloads-and-counting
Temple Run and its 2013 sequel, Temple Run 2.

The Gamer

FC: How do you come up with great game app ideas?

KS:When we were making our first game, my wife Natalia and I had been playing a lot of Scrabble. We came up with an idea around sliding whole rows and columns of letters, trying to make words in a crossword fashion. It's really cumbersome to play using actual tiles. But as soon as you put that into a computer program, you can have tiles automatically wrap around like you're on a pulley system. The mechanic works really well. And it's perfect for the touch screen, because you can touch and drag and rotate things—very in line with the controls that are actually available on the iPhone. Then we made a spin off from Imangi, called Word Squares. It was more of a word puzzle and something we made very fast, because we were able to reuse a lot of the software that we built for Imangi—and it did even better than the previous one. So the simple answer is you draw on what already interests you, and you hopefully use elements of what you've already built to create the next one.

FC: But you've had a couple of flops, too ... what happened?

KS:Little Red Sled was our next game and we were trying something much more ambitious. We were going from a puzzle game, which didn't really require a lot of art, to making a three-dimensional game about sledding, which needed a ton of art. Plus it had a lot of levels, and it takes a lot of time to create all that content and make the story interesting. Really, it was too big of a project for us, too huge a leap to go from a word puzzle to making a 3-D racing game. And it took a lot longer to build than we expected it to. We were making this very kid-friendly winter sledding game, trying to get it out before Christmas, and we completely blew our deadline. That's a theme that's pretty rampant in the game industry. It's really hard to estimate how much time it takes. You're trying to make something fun, and fun's not really something that you can calculate or engineer. It's something you kind of have to just stumble around and find.

FC: How do you bounce back after a big fail?

KS:That's when we built Harbor Master—after that experience of working on something that was much bigger scope, we said, Wow, we need to rein this in. Let's make something that's going to take us two to three months, something not based on levels. Essentially an arcade game where you could play the same levels over and over, and you're going after beating your high score. At the time line drawing games were really popular, like Flight Control, where you're using your finger to draw paths on the screen, so we came up with a game where you do that to manage the chaos of a busy harbor.

And actually, Temple Run is a very similar story. The project before it was kind of a big flop for us, we learned a lot, and poured everything we learned into Temple Run. That time was a game called Max Adventure—again a 3-D game with a lot of levels requiring a lot of content. Again, we severely underestimated how much time it was going to take. But the biggest learning was that it was also one of those games that's designed to be played with a joystick or something. We had these on-screen virtual controls, which were, you know, okay. But they're not really intuitive to people who don't play games.

After a lot of experimentation we came up with a simple swipe mechanic, which was the nugget, the piece of gold, that ended up turning into Temple Run. In the game, the character is always walking forward, and if you swipe left or right, he would just instantly turn 90 degrees left or right. If you swiped up, he would jump, if you swiped down, he would kind of slide. And what was neat about it, was that you could use the controls using just your thumb, with one hand. It felt very direct. If felt like you were reaching into this world and sort of flicking the character around, nudging him in the direction that you wanted him to go.

If I look across the App Store at all these games that have been huge hits, whether it's Temple Run or Fruit Ninja or Doodle Jump or you know, Pocket God, or whatever, they all have very, very simple control schemes. In Fruit Ninja you're slicing, you know? It's just a swipe. You don't have to know how to play games, that's just what you want to do: You want to do that direct action on the screen. The more complicated your controls are, the more people you alienate.

FC: So app gamers aren't gamer-gamers?

KS:I think a lot of people playing games on cellphones aren't people that consider themselves gamers. They're just regular folks that happen to have a smartphone and happen to find that they have access to all these great games. They naturally gravitate towards the games that are easier and simpler to understand. That was our biggest lesson learned and, now that I think of it, the common thread through all our games, from Imangi to Temple Run: Simple control schemes that are intuitive to the phone and touch-screen experience. The drag and wrap-around of word columns in Imangi. The line-drawing of Harbor Master. The swipe mechanic in Temple Run.

It's why I think there's always room for new game apps and new companies, because the market is SO HUGE. Sure, if you look at the top of the charts, they're starting to be dominated by the big companies that the big franchises like Call of Duty, but I think that's kind of natural. When we started we were one of only 500 apps, and I'll tell you, it was just as hard then to get noticed as it is now. There were only 500 apps, but there also wasn't anybody in the media covering this on a regular basis, there weren't advertising channels, wasn't a lot of industry set up around it. But now you look at the market and there's millions of people that have smartphones—so yeah, the marketplace has a ton of stuff in it, but there's more room to support a lot more people, just because there's more people playing games. And I think that's why I'm really optimistic about this space.

[Photo by Adam Krause]

Fast Talk: App Store Pioneers

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.